If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?

(If you’re new to this series on screenwriting, don’t miss reading: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?, It All Begins With A Screenwriter, and Emails To A Young Screenwriter.)

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I didn’t go to Hollywood to become a screenwriter.

Like those with stars in their eyes that came before me, and the greatly talented unknowns who are there right now, I wanted to be an actress.  I won’t bore you with the details.  If you’re interested, you can always read my book.  Let’s just say the fates decided on screenwriting: agoraphobia and acting don’t really mix that well.

Astrid read my book, so she knew I had studied to be an actress.  She wanted to know if it had helped my writing.

“Has being an actress and having knowledge of the process an actor goes through when getting into character help you understand how to develop your own characters.” she asked in her email.

It’s no secret that writers live in their heads – We’re in there poking around at our imaginations 24/7.  We’re either looking for a story or writing one, and unless we’re writing with a partner, we’re doing it all by ourselves.  That’s not only lonely but it’s limiting.  Where do we find all of our characters?

Through acting.

You can’t be an actor without observing people, and you can’t observe people from behind a desk.  Acting forces you into the world – you become a microscope for observing the human condition.  You don’t just go through life getting from point A to point B – you open your eyes, your ears, your heart to those fellow travelers around you.  You capture their quirks, their voices, their gaits, and you slip all of this on, trying it out for size.  You really do learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes.  You lose yourself and in your place you find characters.

Three Steps to Finding Characters

The best thing I ever did as a writer was to take improvisation classes.  Here is what was expected of us as actors:

1. Observe

2. Capture

3. Perform

As actors, we didn’t just work in the classroom.  We were expected to go out into the world and study people, bring back what we observed, and then, perform it.  Those same three steps are also invaluable to creating fascinating characters that one day you will slip into a screenplay.  And make no mistake, the more fascinating, and complicated, (yet identifiable) characters you put on the page, the greater the chance some executive (reading your script while in rush hour traffic on Laurel Canyon) will be hooked.

But it’s that third step – performing – that helps you understand what to do with those original characters.  It teaches you about the structure of a scene – the beginning (a hook), the middle (complications and conflict), and the end (the payoff). When you perform in an improvisation you learn about tension, and how it helps a scene develop.  You can tell what is working in a scene and what is falling flat because you’re right there in the room with an audience. You can hear them laugh, feel their silences (both good and bad), you can sense if they’re watching, and (most importantly) if they’re caring.  Those are lessons screenwriters have to learn and take back to the workshop, to inject into our writing.

If you’re shy or an introvert as a writer, acting forces you to not be shy on the page. You can’t be an introvert in improvisations – it’ll push you past your comfort zone and stretch you as a writer.  It won’t be easy – it’s painful.  I always felt like throwing up when I was in improv class.  I used to pop Tums or Maalox because the butterflies were so huge.  But looking back, those classes are what started me on a path to becoming a good screenwriter: You will learn how to make your characters much more interesting – how to create multi-dimensional characters that an audience will want to watch. You will learn how conflict moves a story along and how to construct entertaining scenes. Once you’ve taken those improv classes then take a couple of acting classes too. As a screenwriter, you should understand what it feels like to play emotions – not just to feel them, but to perform them. Like a painter, you want to have a palette filled with a wide variety of colors (emotions) for your canvas (the screen), and you do that through acting and improvisation. I honestly don’t know how anyone can write a screenplay (or play) without having been an actor. If you haven’t tried acting or taken an improv class, stop reading right now and go find one. Seriously, sign up.

Someday you’ll thank me for it.

(Read the last post in this screenwriting series, 8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting.)

(Got a question or comment? Don’t be shy – I’ll actually write you back!)

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22 thoughts on “If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?

  1. “You don’t just go through life getting from point A to point B – you open your eyes, your ears, your heart to those fellow travelers around you.” This is absolutely beautiful! When I was younger, I always thought my main character had to be an extension of myself; after all, it was “my” character. As I’ve grown with writing, “my” characters have become a melting pot of quirks: the flawed, the sassy, the spunky, the brave. And what better way to bring words on a page to life than to experience them! Action and reaction. I took a drama class in high school…and that’s about as close to improv as I’ll get. I do a mean “Miracle Worker” monologue, though. 🙂

  2. Darlene, I’m an actor who always wanted to write, but it’s just not my bag; not concentrated enough. I can see why you studied acting. Acting teachers break down scenes and show you why and how they work. They show you the elasticity of relationships and the anger, lament, happiness and surprise that accompany each beat of a scene. But I feel your role as a screenwriter is to produce stories/scripts that can be shot effectively, given the medium and the budget, to produce the maximum bang for the $. If you start to take the actor’s POV then you may be limiting yourself to what you feel to be the actor’s limitations, perhaps your limitations. I know from experience that professonal actors are very clever at taking written words and actions and turning them into something believable on screen. That is their skill and it ought to be taken for granted. So write what you want to write and let the actors, directors, DOPs and the rest deal with it as they have been trained to do. Sincerely, Hugo Napier

    • You bring up some valid points, Hugo. However, when I write a script I’m not writing from only one character’s P.O.V. but from all of the characters in the piece. My job as a screenwriter IS to produce the best story possible that can be translated to film, and characters are a BIG part of that story. Take a look at a lot of bios of screenwriters, and you will see that some of the best ones started out originally as actors. I wasn’t too surprised to find out a couple of nights ago that Aaron Sorkin started out as an actor. You know yourself, Hugo, that as an actor you learn what plays and what doesn’t play, what entertains and what plays flat. Those instincts that are encouraged, and developed in improv classes and acting classes can be invaluable to a screenwriter. What matters most in a script is the story and the characters. The shots are always in the director’s hands – The last thing a director wants is for a screenwriter to tell him/her how the shots should be lined up. We might suggest it in a script, but that ball is definitely in the director’s court along with the cinematographer.

  3. At school I was told that I should go to acting school because I performed well in a drama class. I was too shy back then but have always loved acting because being an emotional and sensitive person with a creative mind allows me to get into the character’s head and feel for them. Since then I have done a spot of acting. I was an extra in Torchwood, series one, episode 13. I have also been an extra in a locally produced film. I love writing and I enjoy acting too. Sometimes they can be incredibly similar, with many overlaps.

    • I’ve found that acting is especially helpful for people who are shy. I think it can help someone who is introverted learn coping skills when dealing with a world that embraces the extrovert. I actually heard someone say that they were a “learned extrovert” and I smiled, thinking, “I wonder if they ever took an acting class?”

      • I was just messing around on wordpress, trying to figure out how everything works on here. I skimmed through other blogs related to screenwriting and came across your site. I really liked how in-depth and thoughtful your blog posts were.

      • Thanks for those kind words! I haven’t written too many blog posts about screenwriting on my website because many of the readers here aren’t screenwriters, and I’m not sure how interesting it is for them. But when Astrid emailed me and asked me those questions, I felt the need to open up the conversation. I’m so glad you joined us!

  4. Darlene, this is a great series! Good for you for coming up with it–it also looks like you’ve got quite an audience going. I’m real proud for you. If I were interested in screenwriting, I’d go that extra mile along with you, you know. But…I got other stuff in the works these days! So keep it goin’!

    • Thanks for the words of support. Hope you’ll read the last post (8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting) which I’m putting up on my blog right now. It’ll give you an entirely new appreciation for one of the professions that works behind the hoopla of Hollywood.

  5. Pingback: 8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting | Darlene Craviotto

  6. Pingback: A Screenwriting Master Class | Artistikem

  7. Pingback: Emails To A Young Screenwriter | Darlene Craviotto

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